What does the ECO drive mode really mean on the Nissan LEAF?

by Ernie Hernandez on September 6, 2011

LEAF shifter

How does it provide more economical driving?

[UPDATED 6/25/13] With the introduction of the 2013 model year Nissan LEAF, Nissan has introduced some changes to the LEAF drive modes. We suggest that you read this article first but then continue on to our most recent article on the 2013 LEAF drive modes (found here).

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There seems to be some confusion among LEAF owners and potential LEAF owners about what exactly the ECO drive mode does. Let’s take a closer look.

First a brief discussion on the shifter operation. Move the mouse forward to go backward and move the mouse backward to go forward. What’s up with that? Pretty simple answer. Nissan discovered that 90% of Nissan LEAF reservationists were Toyota Prius owners. Guess what the shift pattern is on the Toyota Prius?

Toyota Prius shift knobNissan likely felt that it was not in their best interest to alienate 90% of their potential customers right off the bat by making them change the way that they had been shifting for years. And since the whole idea of just a forward/back mechanism is different than a traditional PRNDL automatic transmission layout, they probably figured – Let’s go with what has already been established. So that is very likely why the shift pattern is what it is.

The real question of the moment is – what is the difference between Drive mode and ECO mode? Our distance til empty meter jumps up about 10% or so, but why?

As you have noticed by now (or will if you have not driven a LEAF yet), when you place the car in Drive mode from Park, the dash display tells you that you are in D for drive. The same movement of the mouse a second time (to the left and back) places the LEAF in ECO mode. This is all the Nissan LEAF owner’s manual has to say about the LEAF’s ECO mode:

Use ECO in order to help extend the driving range.

In comparison to the D (Drive) position, ECO
consumes less power for the traction motor and
heater and air conditioner operations and
enables the range of the vehicle to be extended.
ECO can only be selected from the D (Drive) position.

In actual practice, the ECO accelerator pedal changes its mode of operation when selected. Keep in mind that you are just moving, in effect, an electric dimmer switch with your foot. One which can be programmed. When you select the ECO mode of operation, you change the mode of the ECO pedal to be less responsive and offer greater physical resistance. This is in addition to the effect on the heater and air conditioner noted above. Nissan developed the ECO pedal in 2008 and has been using it in the United States on the small 2011 Juke crossover since its introduction in 2010. The result is an increase of fuel efficiency on the order of 5% to 10% depending on driving conditions, according to Nissan’s research.

As you can imagine, if the benefit is derived primarily from the movement of the pedal, it requires pedal movement to do its job. No pedal movement, no benefit. We put it that way for a reason. If you are driving steady state down the freeway at XX miles per hour, the LEAF doesn’t care which mode you’re in – its biggest efficiency obstacle is getting through the air. So the ECO mode is not going to really do you any good if most of your driving is commuting on the freeway. If, on the other hand, you run multiple errands around town or are stuck in rush-hour traffic with stop-and-go freeway conditions, the ECO Pedal will do its thing and remind you to press more slowly on the accelerator to preserve electrons (or gasoline in the Juke).

This caused an acquaintance to ask about acceleration and responsiveness when in the ECO mode. As the design of the pedal is to influence behavior, it will by definition provide less responsiveness whether on the freeway or around town. But Nissan has a very strong safety orientation, and has for some time. We’ll put up another post about that in a couple of days. So, even when in ECO mode, when the accelerator pedal is floored, full power is provided. Safety trumps economy. If you are requesting full power, you must need it for a reason. “All ahead warp speed Mr. Scott!”

There you have it. Nissan’s ECO mode in a (relatively large) nutshell.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

steve September 8, 2011 at 12:35 am

Eco mode also increases the amount of regen braking when your foot is off the brake pedal…

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Ernie Hernandez (LEAFguy) September 8, 2011 at 7:14 pm

steve – absolutely right. Thanks for that addition. Personally, I would like to see even more regen capability offered. Perhaps not as severe as that offered on the Mini E, but regen, even in ECO mode, is still fairly mild with the LEAF.

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David Egan September 20, 2012 at 3:47 am

Thanks Ernie for your explanation of the difference of the “ECO” drive position and the “D” drive position.As a recent owner of a LEAF I wondered how they achieved the ECO. So the accelerator pedal is basically a reostat or potentiometer to reduce the rate at which the Battery power is being consumed. No2 you are right , I was a prius owner for six years and I must say that it is a fabouless piece of engineering. The problem with the prius and indeed the LEAF is that very few of the dealers know much about them. It impossable to get a list of the checks that should be done when being serviced. This is my experience. David

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Ernie Hernandez (LEAFguy) September 20, 2012 at 5:31 pm

David – Welcome to Living LEAF. You’re right – the accelerator is a potentiometer. But for many the idea of a dimmer switch is easier to grasp. I like to go with easy to understand descriptions when possible. Thanks for providing your input. The more contributors that we have, the more useful this site becomes.

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David Egan September 21, 2012 at 7:28 am

Ernie,I would like to get a list of the checks that need to be done on the leaf , say for a 30 k mile check or service. Can you recomend a site where this info is available.David

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Ernie Hernandez (LEAFguy) September 21, 2012 at 11:05 am

Hi David. Your best source for maintenance info on the LEAF (or any car) is the manufacturer. The LEAF has two maintenance schedules, per the maintenance manual which you received with your owner’s manual – Schedule 1 (more severe operating conditions) and Schedule 2 (less severe). Most owners will operate their vehicles in less severe conditions, so the Schedule 2 (and Schedule 1 in this case) service requirements are fine. At 30 months (not mileage based) Nissan recommends changing the brake fluid, replacing the in-cabin filter (to filter pollen, dust, etc for passengers), and rotating the tires. In addition, several inspections are performed. All Nissan manuals are available online, which I have linked to above. Hope that helps!

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David Egan September 22, 2012 at 5:42 am

Thanks Ernie.Very helpful. David

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pete.d April 10, 2013 at 10:01 pm

This excellent, concise description of ECO mode deserves an update:

For the 2013 models, ECO mode is now controlled via a button on the steering wheel, and the shift “mouse” gets a new (old) function for the drive-position toggle. When you choose the drive-position a second time, the car selects the more-aggressive regenerative braking mode.

I haven’t driven a Prius, but I presume from the photo above that it had a similar mode.

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Ernie Hernandez (LEAFguy) April 11, 2013 at 8:12 am

pete.d – Welcome to Living LEAF. Thanks for the kind words, and for the reminder to update the article. I will add something to the bottom of this article, and may write a new one about the drive modes.

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Mark Lowney June 21, 2013 at 12:50 pm

Thanks Ernie but as a senior I am still not sure when to use D,B or Eco. I have been driving about 90% on eco but I like the feel of D better. I do this on the freeway and about town. Every dealer says something different. Some say don’t use eco on the freeway and others say the opposite. Also is there a difference between B and eco?

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Ernie Hernandez (LEAFguy) June 23, 2013 at 9:58 pm

Mark – Welcome to Living LEAF. When I wrote this article, it pertained to the 2011-2012 LEAF. The 2013 has the B mode, as you indicated. Look for an article in the near future that discusses the specifics of this system. Thanks for the question.

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Jim August 9, 2013 at 3:02 pm

We just purchased a 2013 Nissan Leaf S. The steering wheel does not have the ECO button. When D mode is selected the first time, ECO mode lights up on the display, when shifting a second time, the ECO mode on the display goes away. I am therefore assuming that ECO mode for this model is the default and shifting into D a second time actually selects the more agressive mode. Never assumed that something so easy could lead to so much confussion. Nissan needs to do better when putting their manuals together and include information for all models.

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Ernie Hernandez (LEAFguy) August 11, 2013 at 2:40 pm

Jim – Welcome to Living LEAF. I have not driven a 2013 LEAF S model, but I was under the impression that the drive mode selection was the same as that on the 2011 and 2012 models. The first time that the controller is moved to the left and back the D mode is selected. The second time that the controller is moved to the left and back the ECO mode is selected. Based on your description they have reversed this for the 2013 Model S. No matter – when the ECO mode indicator light is lit up, the accelerator requires a greater effort to provide acceleration. Also, climate control functionality is optimized for range. The important part is your understanding of the operation when either mode is selected. Also, please remember, in the ECO mode full throttle application will still result in maximum power. I hope that you enjoy your LEAF.

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